03 September 2013

Les chemins

One thing that can make me anxious in less than five minutes in the South of France is to get an address to someone's home that begins "Chemin de la...."   I usually think of a chemin as a country road, as a route leading to a farm or something.  For example, I took a chemin today with a friend to pick up her produce box (look how beautiful these are right now with the new grapes and peppers and tomatoes), and for once, I got just what I expected. Yet, I can't even count anymore how many times I've gone off confidently to visit a new acquaintance or take my kids to a birthday party in our car only to find myself essentially still within city limits, turning off the route departementale or nationale and suddenly bouncing along on a pot-holed, gravelly, ever-narrow, what-I-would-call logging road (I grew up in a logging town in the Pacific NW so I know what these are), wondering if I made a wrong turn and if I will have room to let an oncoming car by me.  Often, my navigator app on my phone urges me to continue on this seemingly remote road, and sometimes I do, despite having to reverse or somehow squeeze by an occasional car coming towards me.  Other times, I stop and phone my host to double-check, like last week when my son said, 'Mom, no way, this CAN'T be right!'.  Yet EVERY time, I am surprised to find myself eventually at a tall, often forbidding gate that when opened remotely, takes me down a rough driveway that ends up at......a gorgeous French home.  And all the other gates along the crazy road I've just driven down lead to similar homes.  I've never seen anything like this anywhere!  A French friend tells me that this may be a bit particular to the south.  I don't know yet what to call the phenomenon, but I still find it so surprising.

What is it about the forbidding routes to residential homes?  I've decided these are the result of shrewd calculations about impression management, coupled with perhaps a greater French tolerance for discomfort.  Or, maybe there is some stinginess too?  First impressions and packaging are very important to the French, when it comes to public encounters and outward appearances.  People dress well here, especially in town like the woman I saw in Aix today walking her dog in the highest, spikiest heels I could imagine for the job.  Gifts and pastries all arrive pretty in boxes, with even single pastries laboriously packaged, such as l'opéra that I enjoyed myself one night recently.  But, family homes are much more private here than in many other places; they hide behind high walls and gated driveways.  Earlier, I suggested that this is in part  for reasons of privacy and concerns about security (see Maisons and chateaux, November 2012).  Popping over to borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor might not be that common here, because popping over would mean exiting one's gate, ringing the buzzer on the neighbor's, and that puts pressure on the neighbors to keep up appearances and manage impressions.  Perhaps because family and home lives seem to be more private here, people may be less compelled to make the effort to create a beautiful, comfortable entry road to one's home.  It also seems to be true that the French tolerate personal discomforts to a degree that many others might not (eg. bathroom facilities, indoor heating...), even tolerating unhappiness more than most (see Contentement, May 2013).   Bouncing along on a ungroomed, unpaved, uneven, tiny road to get to and from work or school each day may just not be a big deal to many people here.  Or, maybe some are simply not willing to fork out the money to improve the roads to their homes?  Is this another one of those instances where if the public interest isn't there, no one will take care of a bumpy situation?

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